Debate | Should Visitors be Allowed to Photograph Artwork in Galleries, Museums and Art Shows?

I received the following email from a reader, and artist and studio owner:

Hi Jason,

Love your Red dot blog!

Here’s a topic that I would love to see addressed:

Ours seems to be the age of phone cameras, selfies, and instant gratification, and I wondered how artists/exhibitors/galleries should handle this. We have a studio/gallery that has some public hours. We do have a sign posted that photographs of the art are not allowed because of copyright issues. Yet I am often confronted with visitors sneaking photos of everything they like, or just expecting that they can, and feeling indignant when they can’t. Also students come in working on projects, needing the photo of the art for their essay. Just this afternoon I allowed a high schooler to take photos of two of my entertainment scenes related to his jazz playing…but then I was left wondering just what his project was, and if my art is just going to be part of some visual mash-up.

I am happy to email medium files of art to interested collectors, but that is a time-consuming follow-up process. And many visitors just want it now, at their own convenience, and don’t even want the formality of giving an email address to get an image.

I also notice that in public spaces such as libraries, museums, people expect to snap away. What if you are a contemporary artist in a museum show – do you have to resign yourself to allowing everyone take high resolution photos of your art? They don’t have enough staff to police anyway in most smaller museums.

How does Xanadu handle this? Other exhibitors in arts festivals etc?

I’m in a quandary because photos from receptions, with people with the art, do seem to be helpful for publicity, but then where do you draw the line? Hard to say you can photograph the people, but not the art straight on. How do we balance access, the public’s enthusiasm and involvement with protecting our art from being used without recompense?

Love to hear your and Barney’s thoughts,



My response

Thank you for the email Karen. I’ve taken the approach that people in my gallery taking photos are helping me market the gallery, primarily to themselves, but sometimes to others through social media. I don’t really see this as a copyright issue. Even though smartphone cameras are hi-res, the likelihood that someone is going to get an image that would be high enough quality for reproductions without using a tripod and professional lighting is pretty low. It’s also likely that only a very, very small percentage of people visiting your gallery would even have the desire to violate your copyright. So what you are doing by having a strict no photography policy is irritating the vast majority of visitors to your gallery in order to protect yourself from a very small risk. Though only you can make the calculation, I’ve decided it’s just not worth the cost in terms of policing a policy like this, especially when you will end up being one of only a very small number of venues to do so.

We try to use photography in the gallery as a sales opportunity. When someone starts taking photos or asks if they can, we are very accommodating, even encouraging. We also offer to email them a photo of the piece they are interested in, letting them know that the email will include the size, price and artist name.

I would encourage you to rethink the policy and turn it from a negative into a positive.

Let me know if there is some other consideration that I’m not seeing.


What Do You Think?

So what do you think – should people be allowed to take photos of art in galleries or other venues? Have you ever had an image misappropriated by a viewer? How do you handle this issue when showing your work?

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. I was happy to see this question asked because I always wonder if I am handling it right and I feel the same as you do. I usually do outdoor art shows. I have friends that do not let people take pics but I do. Usually people will ask so they can show a pic to a spouse etc. I think it adds a negative feeling if you approach someone and ask them not to take pics and they usually leave afterwards. Who knows if they would have bought something or not. I have not had any problems of coping that I know of.

  2. I know it’s different for me, because I’m a sculptor, than for someone doing two dimensional work, but I ENCOURAGE photography. I consider it quite a compliment, and Inevitably the photos get posted, which is free marketing for me. Win-win, everyone is happy.

  3. hello Jason. I have had repeated issues with this aspect. Because i publish reproductive imagery of the art for wider distribution than the originals market such photos pose a risk to my business. Even Low res images are actually sufficient for the knock off houses to do repaints from and in some cases those images are on the market before my own due to their already global distribution networks. Most artists who are single producers think this is funny but in the publishing trades the practice can and has taken down businesses upon which artists, writers and many other support staff make their living. It is anything but harmless.
    Photos for private consumption for buying an original are simple affairs as long as you know where your sending the imagery along with a legal caveat of its use.
    I am very reluctant to allow photos of original works, i would rather hand them an art card with the reproduction. At least then i know where they got the image for the repainted copy. Rarely will those repaints reflect the original sufficiently to be a bother. Kind of like the millions of repaints produced of picasso pieces from books in hundreds or thousands of classes around the globe. In my experience the art repro tech today allows even private people the ability to copy your art at will either privately or through repro houses that simply do not care about where the image came from. One good digital photo can last forever to haunt your marketing for a lifetime.

    1. I’m a writer as well as an artist and my works have been pirated, draining my royalties on certain projects. I also sell PODs of my paintings and Royalty-Free digital photo landscapes on a number of sites, so I know what you are talking about. Sadly, you really can’t stop this, especially with smart phone pictures.

      I agree with Jason. You might as well look at it as a publicity/selling tool. I know that in conventional galleries many collectors come in, look around, and are interested in a work, but wait until later to buy. I know I do. I wait to see if I feel I can’t live without a piece. A photo helps make the sale, or makes it easy to share with a friend who I think might be interested. This is especially useful when buying art for a relative.

      As for museums, I live out in the sticks and seldom visit cities. Taking photos at the Norton Simon and LACMA when in LA and the Met in NYC has allowed me to study the paintings in detail and to see them in scale, different from photos others have taken. Part of the mission of a museum has always been education not only for the public, but also for artists. We build upon each other’s work. We are not like Picasso and Gris or Matisse who could visit each other’s studios. When time is short, photos can help, and I’m not talking about copying. I know what you mean, and that is both infuriating and sad. That’s not what I mean. I’m thinking visual dialogue.

      Other artists, real artists, see no point in treading the same ground as contemporaries, except, perhaps, to practice. The point of art, at least for some of us, is to say what has not already been said.

  4. I do not the think the issue is reproduction of the work, but your clientele is very different than mine if it works as a marketing tool for visitors to take pictures of the art. In Santa Fe (in a normal time), we have a lot of people are taking pictures INSTEAD of having any intention of buying art.

    Many times, we have asked why they are taking a picture. “Because I like the piece and want to look at it at home.” We explain (kindly) that the artist makes the art for sale, so people can take it home and look at it. That is how they make their living. So many people are actually surprised at this revelation. It shocks me, but, hopefully, we are building awareness. Some others have actually admitted, without guile, that they are taking the picture to copy it.

    After 24 years in the business, we know when a person is an interested buyer or will be someday and we help them to take pictures, measurements, etc. We will also text them pictures on request. But people looking for a free souvenirs or things to copy are not accommodated.

    How do we enforce this? We do not allow cell phone use in the gallery at all. This works great because it also eliminates people strolling through mindlessly while chatting and bumping into things. Twice, we had displays knocked over and artworks broken because of this. It also eliminates loud conversations (even on speaker!) that are very disruptive to our conversation with actual customers.

    I love your blog and learn a lot from you – and I am glad the photo freedom works for you, but it certainly does not work for us.

    1. I agree with Jessica wholeheartedly ! I’ve had a gallery in Flagstaff, AZ for 20 years & we’ve had a lot of abuse with photos. We post signs on the walls. I don’t like the negative connotation but I feel it is a copyright issue for the artist & I feel that is part of my job is to protect artist integrity. If someone really needs to run something by their husband, then we make an exception but so many like to just click away at everything! Artists work so hard at what they do it doesn’t seem right to just let other people possibly go & reproduce it! I do enjoy your blog, thanks.

  5. This is a sticky subject. As a gallery owner, I am personally against people shooting away in my gallery. If a person is truly interested in the image for consideration of purchase, then they can simply find it on the gallery’s website. Unfortunately the public feels entitled, and you run the chance of irritating the potential client if you refuse to let them take an image. The piracy of artistic images is a real problem, however what the solution is remains unclear. I was speaking with the director of a museum about this very issue, and he said that it used to be manageable when people carried 35 mm cameras, however now with i phone cameras it is impossible to police. He added that certain exhibits are more vulnerable to light damage, so extra precautions are taken in those circumstances. I personally do not think that someone taking a photograph of one of my artist’s works is going to help them gain more exposure, unless they were posting it to social media with the artist’s name, as well as the gallery’s name. That simply does not happen. Unfortunately this is more than likely a problem which is here to stay.

  6. As an artist whose sales have been primarily through art consultants into healthcare facilities, my only experience with this was wonderful. I participated in a juried art association show at their cooperative gallery, and six months later a collector went back to the association asking after my piece. She had taken a photo when the show was up and thought about it for that long before deciding to go ahead and buy it. The gallery was thrilled (their biggest sale to date), and I was too. She has since purchased another piece and continues to follow my art. If I were Richard Dixon, above, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but I’m so glad she took a picture when she did!

  7. Since people can find, screenshot, and steel pics of my art on Instagram, I don’t see how having it taken from a gallery would be any worse. I, and I think a great many other artists are using social media as a way to promote themselves. The same thing can happen anywhere.
    One way I can think of to protect art from photos in person is to glaze it with a high gloss varnish after taking your own photos, or protecting it under a glass frame, that way the flash will pick up too much light, and might obscure the work in photos

  8. As both an artist & a collector, I think photos are great. Art is such an inaccessible, exclusive thing for many people, so I think snapping photos goes beyond “instant gratification” or “entitlement.” It’s sometimes the only way someone can remember a piece. Sure, they could also request an email copy, but I personally enjoy the experience of photographing art, & the setting lends to my memory of a piece differently than an emailed scan.

    As a consumer I, of course, ask permission & honor signs that explicitly request no photos when visiting museums or galleries, but as a buyer, I’ve taken a photo in a gallery & thought about the piece & gone back to buy it, & as a seller, I know not everyone can afford what I make, & if a photo is what they have access to, at least they liked my art enough to want to remember it. & if they share that photo with a friend or post it on social media? The more eyes on art, the better.

  9. my work is Fiber and has been in Art Quilt Shows. Some of these are marked–no photography and there is an expensive book available for sale that includes the images. A photograph in a book does not reveal the scale of the piece even with the size printed somewhere on the caption. It is hard not to feel resentful when there is just one piece that is appealing and the thought of lugging around a heavy coffee table book through the rest of the exhibit is not appealing. In the past, there was concern about flash photography providing sparks or somehow the additional light would light damage the work.

    From my perspective in going to assorted shows, the abundance of i-pads held over the heads means few people except those in the front row can see.

    There doesn’t seem to be a good solution but maybe the fervor for selfies and those i-pads will die down.

  10. As an artist, I rather like it if someone wants to take a photo of one of my paintings in a gallery. I have often found that the more times someone looks at my work, the more likely they are to buy it. So by having it on their phone it may get more looks than if they had to return to the gallery to see it. I am pretty confident that a photo of a painting that’s behind glass (or not) with non-studio lighting will not be helpful for uses that would violate my copyright. If they want to try to paint one like it, I say go for it!

  11. I prefer that photos aren’t taken while looking at artwork in an exhibition, however, it’s going to happen and I don’t want to upset either myself or the patrons so I just smile and let it be. As Jason pointed out, it’s not too likely that your copyright will be violated and if they are amateur painters and just want a picture of a particular piece, that’s really a positive more than a negative. Probably they won’t be able to paint it just like the original anyway. I actually, just recently, had a lady write to me that she’d painted a copy of something of mine she saw on Facebook and explained that she loved my piece but couldn’t afford to buy it so she just painted it ! I explained copyright in Canada and was nice and I eventually ended up laughing, telling her I hope she enjoyed the picture but to please not ever try to sell it. She was so obliging and I know she was both surprised and horrified at the same time for having done this. I assured her it was ok and we both had a nice feeling. She keeps in touch with me and I am most grateful for this. She is a nice person, just not ‘in the know’ !
    What ‘does’ bother me are the people (or companies) that I’ve been told take artists’ work from online venues, such as certain well- known and well-used online ‘galleries’ (I’m on one in America who handles fine art,), and notice that two particular ‘locations’ look at my work in an ongoing sequence, one after the other. No comments, no questions etc., just ‘visiting’. Over and over and over, on through all 400+ pieces that I have uploaded. I’ve so often wondered whether or not they are being taken for cheap reproductions and actually quit my membership with this one online gallery, thought better of it and rejoined, after explaining to them why I’d done so. They could not offer any comfort that my suspicions were incorrect. I’ve finally decided that this is just a part, albeit a bad part, of a wonderful life as a painter! I shall just let it be and enjoy the sales I do make to good and honest art collectors.

    1. Yep, the “lifting” of online work is something all creators (art, music, writing, film) have to live with. It’s exasperating, but there’s nothing to do about it except create more and be philosophical.

  12. Image pirating, copyright infringement, theft, whatever you want to call it is the curse of being an artist. Every time an image, a song, or written words are used by someone for personal profit it is stealing plain and simple. If you make a living making art it is a loss of income and if the repurposing of your work without your permission ties you to a harmful product or cause it can damage your reputation and future sales.

    Taking a photo of works in a gallery can sell a picture or it can facilitate ripping off your image. Of course any public showing of your work leaves it open to viewing and copying, taking photos just makes the theft easier. It always irritated me when I was in an art museum and some jerks was taking flash pictures of the art when down in the gift shop there was probably a nicely lit postcard of the work done by a professional photographer.

    Copying has always been a way to learn and students have copied the masters in artists’ workshops and art museums forever and in some cultures images and forms belong to the culture and each generation copies those forms and their culture survives.

    Cameras and the internet have brought theft to a new height, everyone thinks it’s alright to copy and steal and the tech giants facilitate theft and do it themselves and the artist gets screwed.

    Most pictures taken in galleries are harmless , they might help make a sale and most probably they will end up as another bunch of wasted pixels in someone’s phone. The only way to change behavior is by educating and by strengthening copyright laws and by making protection of copyright less cumbersome and less expensive in court.

    Artists need to know about copyright, the protection it affords and the rights you can grant when you sell your art. For instance, you can sell your original but retain the copyright of that work which allows you to control how images of that work are used. Artists and gallery owners need to stress the fact that art is a special product with value. A written contract or sales receipt should tell the buyer exactly what rights they are buying when they purchase a piece of art.

    You as an artist have a duty to protect the value of your product and if you are not willing to do that don’t expect the public to respect and value your product. A photo won’t ruin your career, but if you fail to protect your rights you can sink your career.

    And by the way the CASE Act, a bill to make a copyright small claims court has been passed by Congress and must go before the Senate. Write your Senator and support this one small step to make copyright protection more affordable to creators.

  13. While I don’t mind people taking pictures of my art work ( mostly mixed media) I do have a photographer friend who visited an art show and found his image—with another artist name on it! Turns out, the other artist (thief really) took a high res picture, reproduced it, submitted and was accepted to the venue. My friend saw it and confronted the thief who, without a word, took the photograph off the gallery wall and headed out the door. Possibly to show and sell at another venue. So in the case of taking pictures of photographs, there is a real problem of actual thievery. How can you address that issue?

  14. Sorry in advance for the long post but perhaps this may be useful.

    I was trained in Fine Art but worked in Commercial Art for 30 years before finally coming back to my heart’s work. When I was young I visited many museums and snapped photos with a camera to help me remember. During my commercial career, clients often asked me to use other’s art as a stepping stone to their projects (I designed trade show and conference environments, applying thematic artwork to hundreds of signage and decorations in large venues). Since the art files were client-supplied, and part of their existing marketing campaigns, I had no way to verify their legal use, but I convinced my employer to get in writing some sort of declaration from our clients that they were legally providing the source files. As part of my job I also created original source artwork for some clients, using stock art or my own creations (which were legally owned by my employer). The Stock Art sites have mined this issue for decades, and are a good resource to review Usage Clauses.

    When I quit my job and worked as a Freelance Event designer, I grappled with the concept of putting my art online, where anyone could steal it. I used decent resolution photos but small physical dimensions on the sites. Funny thing, the only time I was ripped off was by a former client, who re-purposed a design for another campaign outside our contract. What really blew me away was that they did such a lousy job of copying me (!) – I just politely asked them to not do that and let it go. And I had a good contract for usage based on the Stock Art companies model and written by a good attorney.

    FINALLY I’ve started to transition to my original art to feed my soul (!) I’ve had to learn tons of new products and techniques that did not exist when I went to school, in workshops or on YouTube. And today there are thousands of websites and galleries and shows to experience art from others, as well as in the workshops I attend. I take photos to remind me of this learning curve, of materials I want to try out sometime or a particular color combination I admire. Others take photos of my work, too, be they other artists or potential collectors. Based on my experience with the former client trying to copy me and missing the mark, I don’t allow fear to impede on the joy I have from finally following my heart.

    And fortunately for me my work is very textural and does not lend itself to digital reproduction for purchase (giglee or POD). I realize that many other artists are not that lucky. United States copyright law automatically confers copyright (FREE) to the original artist (keep good records and photos of work-in-progress), and you could reap the profits from their theft (ex: the profits on the prints sold with your image). If you REGISTER the artwork with the Copyright Office (FEE) you are entitled to Statutory Damages of up to $150,000. IF you register the work in advance of the infringement you may ALSO recoup attorney’s fees, BUT notable is you can register AFTER the infringement and still retain some rights. More info on this issue of art registration here, as well as general google search.

    1. Carol Sconzert wrote, “If you REGISTER the artwork with the Copyright Office (FEE) you are entitled to Statutory Damages of up to $150,000. IF you register the work in advance of the infringement you may ALSO recoup attorney’s fees…”

      Hi Carol: The attorney-authored article you linked to leaves out some critical information: To be clear, artists are eligible for statutory damages (from $750 to $30,000 and up to $150,000 for willful infringement) against copyright infringers BUT ONLY when their artwork is “timely” registered with the US Copyright Office.

      “Timely” means either BEFORE the copyright infringement occurs OR the work is registered within three-months of its first-publication date (the attorney article failed to include the critical three-month statutory registration deadline!).

      “Publication” is typically the day the creative work is being offered for sale, licensing, or made available for further distribution to the public. Here are the copyright law legal citations: 17 USC § 412 (Registration as prerequisite to certain remedies for infringement) AND 17 USC § 504 (Remedies for infringement: Damages and profits).

      Timely registered creative works will also permit the artist to pursue her attorney fees and legal costs from the copyright infringer (recoupment of attorney fees and costs are NOT automatic; they are at the court’s discretion). See 17 USC § 505 (Remedies for infringement: Costs and attorney’s fees).

      I’ve timely registered pretty much ALL my creative artworks during the last 15+ years! In 2012 I settled out of court a copyright infringement dispute against a billion dollar publisher and received a very nice monetary settlement.

  15. I agree with you, Jason. I really don’t see the harm of our work being spread this way. I admit it annoys me when people feel entitled to snap as many photographs of art as they feel like, even when the work isn’t mine, although I know this is an emotional reaction to perceived rudeness and not an analytical one. For example, my internet recently went down and a tech came out to fix it. He commented on my paintings, saying how much he liked them. Sometime after, when my back was turned, I heard the click of his phone taking pictures. My knee-jerk reaction was to call him on it, (he could’ve at least asked), but really, what’s he going to do? Cost me a sale? Lol, doubtful! He’s going to show his friends! Good for me! I don’t see the difference between this and when a fan shares paintings that I post to Instagram. I love when that happens! The only peril I can see is that someone might copy my ideas or even try to pass my work off as their own, but even that doesn’t seem likely. I honestly don’t think it’s so much about copyright issues as it is that we’re protective of our babies, and like to share them on our own terms. Hence, a bunch likes on an image we’ve shared on Facebook or Instagram makes us happy, and yet one random person sneaking a photo at a gallery makes us bristle. Humans are such interesting creatures, lol…

  16. I very much agree with your view, Jason, on allowing interested parties photograph paintings in galleries or any other exhibits. I certainly allow that to take place, during my art exhibits, and yes I would even encourage it. I believe it just might be a great exposure to an artist work, and also, I think, a nice way to share the image of a piece they might not be able to purchase.

  17. This is an interesting topic to discuss because I often wondered why some galleries are ok with taking photos and others, not ok.

    Recently I visited the Ufitsi and Academia galleries in Florence, Italy, where they had absolutely no problem with guests taking photographs of artworks as long as the flash is not used.

    In fact, I was so excited to be able to take video and photos of the Birth of Venus and the statue of David that I still look back on them to reflect upon the beauty of the art. I also share this positive experience with everyone I talk to who plans to visit Florence. That’s fee advertising for the museums of Italy!

    Really, what’s the point of going all that way to Europe, to pay hefty entrance fees and stand in long wait lines to get into these galleries if you can’t take home the memories?

    Moreover , I have also been to the Louvre in Paris and much like the photo used in your article, I was one of those peeps standing in the middle of the mash-pit trying to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. When I finally made my way to it, I was mesmerized by DeVinci’s masterpiece…I thought, “Wow, I am so glad I can take a photo so that I can let someone else stand in front of it”. Also, to be able to closely examine the details of the art, let alone, re-live that moment in time- it’s priceless.

    In contrast to that experience, I went to a shop gallery located in Bellagio, Lake Como, Italy, where the staff was very strict and persnickety. Eager to buy a beautiful piece to take back home with me, I aimed my camera at a painting on the wall that I liked in order to show my boyfriend via text. Well, the manager quickly asked me to put my camera away and scolded me. I felt very frustrated by his actions and frankly, was uncomfortable doing business after being treated like an irresponsible child. Especially when it just feels natural to take pictures of things I love and want to buy.

    Too bad for that gallery! Naturally, I moved on and they didn’t get my business.

    So, I agree with Jason 100% on this one.

  18. I wonder why no one has considered the ridiculousness of people in art museums and galleries crowding around art taking pictures with their phones, rather than seeing the art with their eyes and minds. Last time I was in NY I visited MOMA and was asked continually to step aside so some one could take a photo with their phone. I will never go back until that rudeness is not allowed. One of the guards told me that a visitor has backed into a sculpture breaking it trying to get a better snap on their phone of another piece. You can always buy a book or postcard in the gift shop. Life being experienced through your stupid phone. Nuts!

  19. John P. Schmelzer is right on point with his commentary, including the CASE Act, the “Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act (2019).”

    If CASE passes, creatives may be able to pursue copyright infringers in a small-claims-type venue and without an attorney to get their day in court. CASE is most applicable for those creatives who choose NOT to timely “register” their copyright claims with the US Copyright Office.

    CASE is meant to be a low-cost and stream-line procedure to resolve copyright disputes.

  20. An artist may claim that her work is copyright protected. However, unless it’s been timely registered with the US Copyright Office it will be challenging and uneconomical and unenforceable to pursue infringers for money damages.

    If the artist does not care about receiving money damages and just wants to get her work removed from the infringer’s web or social media sites (assuming the use does not qualify within Fair Use), she can file a free DMCA “Take-Down” Notice against the infringer’s ISP. If the infringer files a counter-notice, the artist may have to file a lawsuit in federal court (or in the small-claims CASE court – legislation is pending) to get the unauthorized work removed.

  21. I’m fine with peopler photographing my work in galleries, although I’m not aware of it happening much. My friends and clients will take pictures of themselves with my artwork to send to me or to put on social media. I agree it’s good publicity for the gallery… and for me! I rarely photograph artwork when I’m in a gallery, but do ask if it’s ok when I do. Sometimes I want to remember an artist’s name or feel especially inspired by a technique. I’ve only had one gallery owner tell me I couldn’t take any pictures and this was frustrating as it was my friend’s exhibit and as she couldn’t make it she wanted me to photograph the show for her. Geeshe.

  22. I agree with your approach, Jason. These days people can find anything on the internet. If the artist has a website or some sort of social media presence, his or her work is probably there for everyone to see. Trying to limit picture-taking in the gallery is pointless.

  23. I’ve always been in favour of people take photos in galleries and museums. I was in a gallery yesterday and my friend took a photo of me under a painting or another friend of mine. Today a collector came to my house and purchased two works privately. She asked about framing. I showed her the photo my friend had taken yesterday (as the framing of the painting was monumentally awesome). She was so impressed, she’s taking my two paintings and another big one she had in the car by another artist to that particular gallery for framing. It’s all about generosity and sharing and caring…

  24. I was in a outdoor art walk. Everyone, who wanted to take pictures, asked me for permission to take pictures with the exception of one. As she was walking away I said, “Everyone else who took pictures at least asked me if it was okay.” She was in her 20’s and belligerently said, “I don’t have to!”

    I was so mad. I asked my brother, a lawyer, if this was an infringement and he said no. So legally we have no choice but to let people take the shots. Bummer!

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